Archive for December, 2007

The boy in the iron coffin

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Newfound descendants of boy in iron coffin gather

ONLEY — Christmas came early for Smithsonian Institution researchers and relatives of an Accomack County boy whose unmarked grave was discovered accidentally in 2005 by utility workers replacing a gas line in a Washington neighborhood.

Three members of the Smithsonian team that identified the boy traveled to Accomack last week to present their findings and conduct further research and they were happy with what they found — including more members added to the family tree through information given by local relatives as well as the discovery in the Accomack Circuit Court Clerk’s Office of additional information about the boy.

The discovery of the unusual cast-iron coffin in a Columbia Heights subdivision sparked two years of investigation by the multidisciplinary Smithsonian team in an effort to find the identity of the child inside.

After several false starts, the trail led to Accomack County and to Eastern Shore genealogists M.K. Miles and Gail Walczyk, who helped researchers piece together the boy’s story from Accomack court records.

At Nandua High School, relatives of the boy, William Taylor White, sat in rapt attention as Deb Hull-Walski, Dave Hunt and Lynn Snyder of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History explained how White was identified using DNA analysis and historical records.

White died in January 1852 at age 15 while attending Columbian College in Washington. Accomack County court records show he was orphaned at age 6 and taken in by a wealthy Baptist woman from Pastoria, Ann Custis Taylor, who died in 1850 and left money in her will for his education.

His gravesite was apparently overlooked when the Baptist college, now part of George Washington University, moved in the 1880s.

White’s family line had to be traced to find a close living relative. In that process, more than 900 members of the family were found by tracing two siblings who married and had children.

Among the 150 people who attended last week’s presentation sponsored by the Eastern Shore Public Library were some 20 relatives from as far away as Delaware, although most were from Accomack County.

Relatives saw for the first time a computer reconstruction of White’s face.

Another slide showed the boy’s face juxtaposed with a 1940s photo of his brother’s descendent, Agnes White, and a photo taken this year of Linda Dwyer — the Lancaster, Pa., woman whose DNA matched William’s, proving his identity.

The family resemblance is unmistakable — all three have the same broad brow, the same chin, the same teeth.

In the process of tracing the line it has been found that many in the family also have the same congenital heart defect that contributed to White’s death.

Hugs were plentiful at the gathering as newly discovered cousins greeted one another and the Smithsonian team. People lingered for more than an hour, telling family stories and examining genealogical charts. By the evening’s end, relatives had added dozens more names to the charts, even calling others on their cell phones to verify family connections.

Thomas Elliott Burroughs of Salisbury showed Hull-Walski a wallet-sized high school senior portrait of himself taken some decades ago that is striking in its resemblance to the computer-generated image of White’s face.

“It’s amazing to stand here and think how many of us are cousins that had no idea,” marveled Nancy Walker, who recently found out the best friend from whom she grew up across the street, Georgie Brown, is also her cousin.

Brown and her sisters, Julie Caulier and Lenora Nekunas — Agnes’ daughters, also attended the presentation, as did their aunt, 80-year-old Irene Short. Short is one of White’s closest living relatives and could play a part in deciding where his body will be reinterred.

“We’re still pursuing the fact of finding the closest family members,” said Hunt, a forensic anthropologist. “We want to get all the family involved in the decision-making process” as to where his grave should be.

Last weekly Hunt, along with Museum of Natural History collections manager Hull-Walski and archaeologist Snyder visited the Clerk’s Office in Accomac. Among historic records dating to the 1600s they found an 1852 accounting of expenses paid for White at Columbian College out of his inheritance from Taylor.

In the accounting was the cost of White’s funeral, $84.13. When he died, the boy had $862.21 left of the $1,300 Taylor left for his education.

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